The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU
May I start by paying tribute to Lord Melchett who, when he was in the House of Commons, was Peter Melchett? He did outstanding service to the nation when he was here. Indeed, he was a Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office in 1976.
May I also say, Mr Speaker, that in the past 36 hours or so in Northern Ireland there have been three car crashes, which have taken the lives of four people? I am sure the whole House sends our sympathies and condolences to the loved ones of all those who have died.
The UK Government are determined to deliver the best deal for the whole of our United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. We are committed to avoiding a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls, while maintaining the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom. We have proposed a comprehensive future partnership between the UK and the EU that would meet these commitments.
I thank the Minister for that response and for his tribute to Peter Melchett who, as well as serving in the Northern Ireland Office, was a good friend of mine, a lovely man and a passionate environmentalist.
Is it not the case that the backstop proposal is now just dead in the water? The Government are not going to get anywhere with it. A poll this week said that people in Northern Ireland would vote for a united Ireland if a hard border was put in place. Are not the Government sacrificing the Union on this altar? Would not the best solution be to move forward with plans to stay in the single market, stay in the customs union, avoid a hard border, and protect the people of Northern Ireland from Brexit?
I make it absolutely clear to the hon. Lady that it is our intention that there will be no hard border and no physical infrastructure. The people of this country voted in the referendum, and this Government’s intention is to make sure that we are not part of the single market or the customs union. The whole United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, will be leaving those two institutions.
One of the reasons why a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain was because they understood the consequences of leaving the European Union on jobs, livelihoods, communities and cross-border relationships—not simply economic relationships, but personal ones. Given the absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland, and given that the concerns of the people of Northern Ireland are evidently not understood by leading figures in the governing party in Westminster, what are the Government doing to ensure that the concerns and interests of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland are properly heard and represented at the negotiating table?
As far as the referendum is concerned, it was not a regional referendum but a national referendum, and the people of the United Kingdom took a decision to leave. On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, let me make it absolutely clear that we are committed to ensuring that the devolved Administration is up and running again. We are working very hard to ensure that that happens. He should remember that the last time Northern Ireland went into direct rule that lasted for five years, and the period before that lasted for 25 years. It is very easy to slip down the road to direct rule, but we want to avoid that because it is important that local people have local representation that can be accountable locally.
On 27 June, Mr George Hamilton, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee:
“We do not know who is leading the multiagency response to the land border”.
What has been done to give clarity in the weeks since he made that statement? In particular, what proportion of the uplift to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the UK Border Force, as announced by the Government, will be assigned to Northern Ireland?
I assure my hon. Friend that we are in regular contact with all stakeholders in Northern Ireland, including the police. There is detailed planning for a no-deal scenario, but we very much hope that that will not be the case.
May I remind the Minister that in the December joint report on article 50, the EU agreed that the United Kingdom would make sure there was unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the rest of the United Kingdom in all circumstances? Reports over the summer suggest that Mr Barnier appears to be devising creative solutions to try to get around the commitment that he made. May I ask the Minister and the Secretary of State to remind him that he signed up to those words and that we expect him to deliver on the commitments that he has made?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for putting that point at the forefront of our proceedings following the recess. He is absolutely right: Michel Barnier made the commitment; and the European Union and Britain signed up to the joint report in December. We intend to hold him to it.
May I bring the Minister back to the question asked by the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which he did not answer? The issue highlighted by the Chief Constable of the PSNI, which we have raised directly with the Prime Minister, is what extra resources are being given to prepare for Brexit. Those resources have been requested by the Chief Constable, since he has made it very, very clear that he has not had a fair allocation.
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will issue guidance in the future. We are working on it at the moment and working with all the stakeholders. It will be forthcoming in the not-too-distant future, I hope.
With the greatest respect, we are not asking about issuing guidance; we are asking about the allocation of resources. I really want to press the Minister on this issue, since it will have a very big impact on the resourcing of policing in Northern Ireland more widely. What are he and the Government going to do—this has been on their table for many months now—to allocate to the Chief Constable the resources that he needs and that he fairly has asked for?
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke to the Chief Constable this morning. We are in regular dialogue and we are considering the proposals that he has put forward. That is what I can say. We hope to come up with a solution in due course.
The Government are right to reject the EU’s proposals for a customs border in the Irish sea. Will the Minister remind the House of the balance of trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the Republic and Great Britain?
It is important to remember that 58% of the external sales of Northern Ireland—over £14 billion—is with the rest of the United Kingdom. That is four times more than its trade with Ireland.
Two weeks ago, the Government published advice for UK businesses on the potential impact of a Brexit no deal. Unbelievably, businesses in Northern Ireland were asked to
“consider whether you need advice from the Irish Government about preparations you need to make.”
That is a quite extraordinary abdication of responsibility. Will the Minister confirm what involvement his Department had in the preparation of the advice, and will he commit to giving further assistance to businesses in Northern Ireland?
Clearly we have a responsibility as a Government to business people in respect of what we will do or what we intend to do, but we cannot speak for other countries. It therefore of course makes eminent sense for businesses in Northern Ireland that do deals across the border to consult so that they find out what is happening with other EU countries. The UK Government cannot speak for the Irish Government, so that dialogue is important.
How do the Government plan to ensure that our departure from the European Union is used as an opportunity to strengthen the Union?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We are leaving the European Union as four nations. It is absolutely clear that the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom will not in any way be compromised. In our negotiations with the European Union, we speak as the United Kingdom, not as any specific one of the four nations.
May I share the Minister’s sentiments about Peter Melchett and the recent loss of life due to the car crashes?
Tourism has been a success story in the years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, helping to transform the image of Northern Ireland throughout the world. It is therefore worrying that figures released in August show a 6% drop in visitors between January and March. The Prime Minister and most of her current and past Cabinets have barely set foot in Northern Ireland over the past two years, so may I suggest a group booking? Such a visit would help to end the drip of uninformed, unhelpful comments about Northern Ireland from the Government Benches that has become dispiritingly regular.
First, I congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment to the shadow Northern Ireland Office team. We look forward to working with her in a constructive way.
It is important that we speak up for Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom as we leave the European Union. The hon. Lady talks about tourism. More people visit Northern Ireland now than before. They are spending more money and staying longer. The “Lonely Planet” guide has recommended Belfast and the Causeway coast as the No. 1 region in the world to visit. It is important to recognise the strengths of Northern Ireland and to build on them.
Leaving the EU: Backstop Proposal
The December joint report commits us to avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and to no new borders within the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister has been very clear that elements of the EU’s backstop proposal are unacceptable. It would, if implemented, undermine the UK common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that in her discussions with the Government of the Irish Republic she has emphasised that Irish insistence on a backstop that would force Northern Ireland, or indeed the whole of the UK, to remain in parts of the EU or its customs union are unacceptable and the surest way to deliver a no deal?
I can assure my hon. Friend that in my discussions with all parties and Governments in the European Union, I am very clear that the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom must be respected, and that means no border down the Irish sea and that all businesses in Northern Ireland must have unfettered access to UK markets, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) indicated earlier.
I appreciate what the Secretary of State has said, but does she fully understand the magnitude of the situation were there to be any move to impose a backstop, divergence or anything else that would separate us from the rest of the United Kingdom?
We have been absolutely clear—the Prime Minister has been clear; I have been clear—that we respect the fact that the backstop has to be put into legal text, but that legal text has to be clear that the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom is sacrosanct.
For two years I operated a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. I see no reason whatsoever why technology cannot make it very soft—indeed, invisible. Does the Secretary of State agree?
My hon. and gallant Friend has great experience from his time in Northern Ireland, and I am sure he knows how difficult it was to police that border. Some 30,000 military and police personnel were unable to close the border, so I do not think that anybody should expect us to see a hard border today. However, I would be very happy to have a conversation with him about technology so that we can really explore all that.
May I, from the bottom of my heart, congratulate the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) on his long-deserved and well-merited elevation to the dizzy heights of Minister of State? I look forward to working with him.
There is, however, a cloud on the horizon. The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill contains a proposal unique in the United Kingdom for unfettered, unqualified stop-and-search along the border. We must never forget that there are those who have to police the border. Will the Secretary of State or Minister of State speak with their opposite numbers about the implications of this piece of ill-thought-out legislation, because I see trouble brewing on the border if it goes ahead?
Conservative Members are delighted that the hon. Gentleman is still in his place. When we saw the very welcome appointment of his colleague over the summer, we had concerns that that might have an impact on his position; we are grateful that it has not.
We are aware of concerns raised in Northern Ireland about that Bill, which deals specifically with the threat elsewhere, and we are having discussions and conversations to give assurances to those in Northern Ireland about the concerns that they have raised.
The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) is personal testimony to the survival of rare breeds. The whole House is grateful for that important fact.
Northern Ireland has proven itself to be a top destination for inward investment from companies from the rest of the UK and also from overseas. Over 900 companies worldwide have invested in Northern Ireland, and I welcome this week’s announcement that PA Consulting will be creating 400 new jobs in Belfast. I firmly believe, however, that Northern Ireland can do even better, and we continue to work to restore stable, devolved government so that Northern Ireland can maximise its potential as a place to invest and do business.
I share the Minister’s enthusiasm. Northern Ireland is clearly a key driver of United Kingdom exports and will be even more important as we leave the European Union, so what steps is the Department taking to foster further investment and also to sell the opportunity of Northern Ireland as a top exporter around the world?
One of the fastest routes to a strong economy is through a healthy, growing export economy. The Northern Ireland Office is working with Departments across Whitehall, including the Department for International Trade, to maximise UK Government initiatives such as the GREAT campaign and the recently launched export strategy to promote exporters and help them to realise their potential. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly champion new investment announcements in Northern Ireland and promote Northern Ireland as a great place in which to invest and do business. That is something that was referred to in the Budget as well.
How on earth does the Minister expect to attract inward investment into Northern Ireland when we have not had a functioning Assembly for 18 months? We have a Secretary of State who said some months ago that she was “minded” to cut the salaries of the MLAs, but she has done absolutely nothing about doing so, so can the Minister give us some very good news today and announce a cut in MLAs’ salaries?
I am delighted to be able to give some very good news to the hon. Lady: in July US company Allstate, which is one of the many companies that are investing in Northern Ireland, opened Northern Ireland’s largest single office development for 15 years, investing £30 million. Allstate employs around 2,200 people in sites in Belfast, Derry and Strabane so, notwithstanding the present circumstances of not having a devolved Administration, the economy is looking up, business is coming in and we continue to try to get that devolved Administration up and running.
I am acutely aware of the deep frustration and difficulties faced by the people of Northern Ireland and the urgent need to re-establish a locally elected, democratically accountable devolved Government. I remain in close contact with the five main political parties and the Irish Government where appropriate.
The roles of the Northern Irish parties and their Assembly should be respected. Will the Minister confirm that the legality of taking Misoprostol, the second pill in medical abortions, at home in Northern Ireland is something for the people of Northern Ireland and their locally elected representatives to determine?
Yes, I can confirm that. Abortion is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, and it is only right that questions of law and policy on abortion, including the legality of any medicines, are decided by a devolved Government in Northern Ireland.
Given that it is now more than 18 months since the Assembly was suspended, will the Prime Minister now become more involved in the process, along with the Taoiseach?
I can assure the hon. Lady that the Prime Minister is very involved in the conversations and discussions that we have with all the main political parties. On her visit to Northern Ireland at the beginning of the summer, she met all five main parties and had discussions with them about that. Again, I continue to hold discussions with the Irish Government, including with the Taoiseach, whom I saw on Sunday.
With very important decisions on matters such as NHS pay and planning now held up by legal uncertainty, is it not time that this House considered legislating to give civil servants the powers that they need to take such decisions?
My right hon. Friend, who has considerable experience of this matter—experience beyond that of many people in this House—is quite right that there are very many decisions. I am looking carefully at the court judgments and determining the best course of action to ensure that we have the best chance of re-establishing devolved government in Stormont, and of making sure that there is good governance for the people of Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State will know that four out of the five political parties eligible to be in the Executive would join the Executive tomorrow. It is one party—Sinn Féin—that is holding the people of Northern Ireland to ransom. Is it not therefore time for the Secretary of State to start ensuring that decisions affecting my constituents and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends are made so that the people of Northern Ireland have some form of government?
The right hon. Gentleman has made many representations to me on this point, and I know how passionately he stands up for his constituents in Lagan Valley, many of whom I met yesterday at the Hillsborough garden party, when they were very complimentary about their Member of Parliament. I continue to have discussions with all five main parties, because the important point is that we get devolved government up and running as soon as possible, but we do ensure that there is good governance in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State will know that it is 600 days this weekend since Northern Ireland had a functioning Assembly or Executive. Will she tell the House very clearly what urgent steps she will take to bring the five parties together, to reconvene the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, to cut the pay of MLAs—as has been asked for already—and of course, importantly, to make sure that real urgency is now put into this? We will support legislation where appropriate, but that legislation has to be brought forward urgently now.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s offer of support for legislation, and I am looking at the options available to us. There are court cases that have hampered decision making and are making things more uncertain; we are acutely aware of that, and I want to make sure that we do something that is coherent, that works for the people of Northern Ireland and that does not prevent the politicians in Northern Ireland from going back into devolved government.
This Government have a strong track record of promoting and supporting LGBT rights across the United Kingdom, including equal marriage. I was proud to demonstrate this support by having the rainbow flag flown from Stormont House last month to mark Belfast Pride.
But flags are not enough. On everything from mental health to civil rights, LGBT people in Northern Ireland are worse off than those in the rest of the UK, but groups I met recently say they get no funding from the Assembly or from Westminster, and there was nothing in the Government’s LGBT action plan. Will the Secretary of State consider the creation of a discretionary fund to ensure these groups get the support they need, particularly while there is no functioning Assembly?
I will look at the hon. Gentleman’s point. I have met many groups representing LGBT interests in Northern Ireland, but many of these matters are devolved and they should quite rightly be resolved by the devolved Government in Stormont.
We are all looking forward to the day, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman. I voted for same-sex marriage to be legal in my own constituency, and I am very proud that I did that, but it is right that these matters are dealt with by the devolved Government. [Interruption.] That is why we need a devolved Government in Stormont—so that we can resolve these issues. [Interruption.]
Order. Members are making far too much noise in the Chamber. I am quite sure it is not something I would ever have done as a Back-Bench Member, and I am sure the House wishes to hear the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—and that is what it is going to do anyway.
Sporting Events: Representation
The people of Northern Ireland have a proud history of sporting achievements gained while representing both the United Kingdom and Ireland. It is for individual athletes, subject to the rules of their respective sport’s governing body, to decide which country they wish to represent. This Government are wholly supportive of this choice being maintained.
The Minister is, as he knows, quite wrong. A young Northern Ireland sportsperson who wishes to, for example, box for the United Kingdom has to move to Great Britain; otherwise, they have to box for Ireland. That is the case in other sports, too. The Belfast agreement said that everyone had the right to choose to be British or Irish. Surely this must apply to sport, and the Minister must do more about this because it is just not fair.
First, I pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who I know has taken a passionate interest in this subject; we have talked about it before. She will of course be aware that Northern Ireland has won serious medals at the Commonwealth games for boxing. The issue itself is a devolved matter, and is also an issue for individual athletes and their governing sporting bodies to take up. As far as the boxing association of Northern Ireland is concerned, I suggest that it continues its dialogue with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Does the Minister agree that all sportsmen and women should have the right to represent the country they choose to, as long as they meet the eligibility criteria for that country?
As I say, if people have the merit to represent their country, there is no reason why they should not, subject to the rules of the governing body of their sport.
The Government’s commitments in respect of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland have been consistently clear. There will be no physical infrastructure on the border or related checks and controls. This commitment is also reflected in the December joint report text, which we have committed to translate into legally binding text in the withdrawal agreement.
In nine months, all that the Government have done by way of proposals for an open border in Ireland is to demand that 27 other sovereign states change their customs systems in order to collect customs duties on behalf of this Government. Why do the Government expect every other country in the European Union to sort out the mess that they have created?
With all due respect, I think the hon. Gentleman is confusing our proposals in the White Paper on the future relationship with our proposals for the legal, binding text for the protocols in paragraph 49 of the joint report, which we have committed to making into a legal text. We are working with the European Union on coming up with a text that we can all live with, but we will not accept the text that was put forward by the European Commission.
The Secretary of State talks with no hint of irony about consistency from this Government. The reality is that their obsession with ending the free movement of people is going to require some form of border control. How does she square ending the free movement of people with her obligations under the Belfast agreement?
The people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, and that means that we will regain control of our laws, our borders and our money. We will also ensure that we will meet the commitments that we made in the joint report in December to ensuring that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland and no border in the Irish sea.
Collecting duties on trade across the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic currently happens and does not present any problems. The real damage to Northern Ireland and to the integrity of the United Kingdom would be to have regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the Republic, giving the EU, rather than London, control over our laws in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that in no circumstances will she agree to the backstop arrangement demanded by the EU, which would split the United Kingdom by having laws—
Order. We are immensely grateful, but that was far too long.
I refer the right hon. Gentleman back to the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when she said that no Prime Minister of the United Kingdom could accept the text put forward by the European Commission.